Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bwazir marked 14 years of detention in the Guantanamo Bay US naval base in Cuba on Thursday, after rejecting an offer of release and transfer to Europe in January. “He certainly wants to get out of there but he wants to go to an Arab country,” his lawyer, John Chandler, says.
His case is not without precedent. In 2010, five Uyghur detainees rejected an offer for resettlement in Palau or the Maldives, even though their decision meant staying at Guantanamo for two or three more years. They were eventually transferred to El Salvador and Slovakia.
Bwazir, 35, decided to stay at Guantanamo just before boarding the plane that would have taken him to Europe – even though he held two hunger strikes to protest against his indefinite incarceration without trial. His attorney has declined to say which country agreed to be his host.
The Yemeni national was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 as an Al Qaeda-affiliated enemy combatant. Chandler says he worked at a charity center in Afghanistan and was sold to the United States by a warlord.
“I think it was a mistake and I told him,” his lawyer says. “Most men at Guantanamo would do anything to leave and would have happily gone to that European country.” Chandler, who also represents other Yemeni detainees, took Bwazir as a pro bono client. He says he is afraid he will not be able to leave before President Barack Obama’s term ends in January. Although Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in 2009, his administration has, so far, failed to secure transfers for all the inmates. The prison, which was opened by then-President George W. Bush in 2002 to bypass civil courts and international regulations, still houses 80 detainees.
Bwazir is depressed, the center has now become his only world and he is afraid of the unknown, Chandler says. “I always worried that a man who spent most of his adult life in an institution that becomes familiar to him may become unwilling to venture into a new and strange world, especially when he does not speak the language.”
Guantanamo officials have been recommending a transfer for Bwazir since 2007.
There are no recent studies on the psychological issues Guantanamo detainees face, but a 2009 report from the prison’s medical staff said a significant number of inmates suffered from personality disorders and anxiety. Another report published by Physicians for Human Rights in 2011 said a study of nine detainees showed that all of them suffered from severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms that are consistent with their claims of torture.
“It’s not surprising that that happens,” says Stephen Soldz, director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Soldz wrote a report for Physicians for Human Rights about CIA tortures practiced on terror suspects. He says some of those who left Guantanamo have faced a “lack of support” in the countries that received them, mistrust from the general public and obstacles to finding work, even when they were transferred to their country of origin.
Some of those who left Guantanamo have faced a “lack of support” in the countries that received them, mistrust from the general public and obstacles to finding work
Guantanamo has housed 779 inmates since 2002. Of the 80 detainees left on the island – most of whom are Yemeni citizens – only 10 have been formally accused. Twenty-six of them are recommended for transfer. The US State Department is looking for countries that are willing to take them because Congress forbids their transfer to the United States. Yemen is excluded for security reasons.
The last transfer took place in April: 10 inmates were resettled in Saudi Arabia. Obama’s goal is to transfer the 26 detainees on the transfer list by the end of August, a State Department official says. Although American authorities do consider prisoners’ preferences for transfer, the final decision is up to the government, he said.
Chandler says Bwazir was expected to stay in a European country for two years where his family could visit him. He would have had an apartment and received financial assistance for living expenses and studies. After two years, he would have been free to move wherever he chose to. “I guess he thought he would end up in an Arab country sooner if he stayed at Guantanamo.”
English version by Dyane Jean François.